The Ekta Club comes of age
The rebellion by a group of young women over common land in Sangrur exemplifies a newly assertive Dalit youth. The author witnesses the clash of the castes in Punjab
The middle-aged Sikhs, seated on plastic chairs in Matoi village’s panchayat office, take dainty sips of Limca and try their best to ignore the tall, slender, 24-year-old woman dressed in a floral kurta, red salwar, blue and white polka dot dupatta and red flip-flops. Sandeep Kaur sits 10 feet away from the men, on the floor, chanting slogans from behind a cordon of burly policemen.
“The auction for 17 bighas [3.4 acres] of panchayat land reserved for scheduled castes is open,” mutters Jasbir Singh Bhanju, Matoi’s block development and panchayat officer (BDPO).
“Thieves!” Sandeep interrupts. “Thieves, thieves, thieves.”
The Punjab Village Commons Land (Regulation) Act of 1961 allows panchayats to rent village land to the highest bidder on the condition that a third is reserved for the scheduled castes and auctioned separately. Yet, for years now, villagers allege and government officials privately admit, dominant Jat-Sikh farmers have subverted the process by bidding for the reserved lands through Dalit intermediaries.
This summer, auctions have been disrupted in at least five villages in Sangrur alone. On Friday, 12 people, including four women and seven policemen, were hospitalised in a clash between villagers and the authorities during the auction of 100 acres of reserved land at Balad Kalan, 20 km from Matoi. Punjab’s Minister for Rural Development Sikander Singh Maluka is investigating the unrest in Sangrur as he fears the movement could gather momentum across the state, says his aide.
Thirty two per cent of Punjab’s population is Dalit, the highest proportion in the country, and inter-caste friction is often sparked by rival claims to village resources. Yet, activists say, most violence slips beneath the radar until the conflict spirals out of control; in part, because the police are reluctant to register complaints under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989.
In 2009, for instance, 1,300 mostly Dalit landless labourers were arrested when the administration cracked down on an agitation for homestead plots for poor families evicted from panchayat land. In 2003, two clashes broke out – one over the control of the finances of a shrine in Talhan, Jalandhar and the other over the right to till common land in Hasanpur in Sangrur.
In Matoi, a routine exercise in rubberstamping has turned into a public confrontation between dominant castes entrenched in Punjab’s bureaucracy and the Ekta Club, a group of 10 young Dalit women, all aged between 18 and 24, who assemble each week at Sandeep’s beauty parlour.
On the streets, a crowd of Jat men hums with quiet menace; at the auction, the Jat sarpanch of Matoi sits alongside Jat officials and Jat policemen. The two Dalits present say they are here to make bids with their own money.
Amarjeet Kaur, a homemaker, says she has sold her bridal jewellery to bid for the right to till this land for one year.
The other bidder, Parsha Ram, is a landless labourer who says he will take a loan – “at whatever interest rate” – to grow “something or the other”.
The bid opens at Rs 7,000 per bigha. Parsha Ram offers Rs 7,100; Amarjeet looks to the Jat farmer sitting behind her and makes a winning bid for Rs 7,200 once he nods his assent.
“No Dalit has this much money,” Sandeep says, “These people are stooges for the Jats. Stop the auction!”
But this auction is over. “There is no proof that upper caste Sikhs are behind this auction,” Bhanju tells me before driving off in a red SUV, “There is no truth to these allegations.”
Fifteen minutes later, a mob of lathi-wielding men bursts out from village sarpanch Jora Singh’s home. I watch in horror as three Dalit men are thrown to the ground and pummelled with sticks, fists and kicks to the head. The police take their time before bestirring themselves.
“Now you know everything about our village,” says Sandeep, shaken but defiant, “Now you know why we are fighting for our land.”
But what will she grow on the land?